The OG Hawaiian-Brazilian rivalry
Last year’s men’s WSL Championship Tour – featuring the long-awaited threat of Julian Wilson and an unprecedented cast of world-beating Brazilians – blew minds. But was it just an intermission?
You could argue (with Gabriel Medina-like confidence) that John John Florence’s bung knee robbed us of the chance to see the best two surfers of their generation vying for the crown. The rivalry is already one of surfing’s greatest, and if Florence’s knee (and focus) holds up, we’ll surely see them collecting plenty more silverware to come.
But years before they were even born, an eerily similar blood feud was in full swing, with mild-mannered style king Mike Stewart and fearless competitive beast Guilherme Tamega winning a ridiculous 15 out of 20 world bodyboarding championships between 1983 and 2002.
(Photo Elliot Morris)
On the eve of the Quiksilver Pro, I contacted the pair to pick the scab of their rivalry in light of two modern-day greats treading their footsteps.
“Mike has always been my inspiration… in terms of trying to beat him,” says GT, Brazil’s six-time world champ, over the phone. “I grew up and came to the scene with one goal in mind – take down the king.”
The Brazilian burst on to the world stage in 1991 when, aged 18, he finished fourth in the annual Pipeline contest – then the sole leg for crowning the world champ. Hawaii’s Mike Stewart, who’d already attained godlike status, won world title #7 that year, but the hard-charging Brazilian kid caused a stir, not unlike Medina’s heroics when, at 17, he won two WCT events in half a season.
“They saw me and went, who is this guy?” GT says. “I was like, I’m here to stay and I’m here to do some damage. You better watch out.”
Mike, who emailed his responses from the Big Island, is more restrained. “As he matured, things heated up,” Mike says. “I guess you could say it got pretty intense.”
Mike added two more world titles to his trophy cabinet (he finished with nine), but GT snapped at his heels, coming third in 1992 and second in 1993 before winning the sport’s inaugural GOB World Tour in 1994.
“I knew things were gonna get ugly from that point,” GT says. “But I liked the challenge.”
GT’s laser-like focus brings to mind the staunch paddling and cold eyes of the reigning surfing world champ, and GT sees it in Medina too. “He’s a fighter,” GT says. “You can see blood in his eyes, angry, and that’s a good thing. You need that. We [Brazilians] don’t take things for granted because we don’t get things easy. We have to work really hard and we fight towards our goal and what we want in life. It’s something I don’t see often from other countries, especially first world countries”
Mike, however, had his fair share of trials too, and there are parallels with Florence’s upbringing. “Growing up as a blond haole kid in Hawaii without a father to help me navigate, I often got bullied and punked in public,” Mike explains. “So, I developed to be a fairly pugnacious character. Whenever I got cornered in a comp, I fought back hard.”
At the height of their rivalry they barely spoke, which evokes the strained interactions you occasionally see between Florence and Medina on webcasts. But it was a different era than today’s stage-managed personas. In one magazine interview before GT won his maiden title, the Brazilian reminded readers that “Mike Stewart is not God” and later, “he’s getting scared… he’s not comfortable anymore.” Bring back the barbs, I say.
“Every time we had a heat, it was fire,” GT laughs today. “And he knows that! He’s always gonna be the guy that tries to make things smaller than they were, but it was big. We avoided each other completely.”
“We never hung out or really talked socially,” Mike says. “Any communication seemed strategic in nature. In the water it was all business. We did our best to beat the other and at almost any cost.”
One contest in Reunion Island saw GT catch a buzzer-beater to squeeze past Mike into the final, pushing the title race to Pipe. “He gave me the look afterwards and he disappeared, and I didn’t see Mike after that,” GT laughs. Mike, who like Florence is famously laidback on the surface, recalls the title coming down to the Pipe final, where his drive to “smash” GT got the better of him. He failed to hold the Brazilian off a winning wave in the last five minutes.
The pair’s reign of dominance came to an end with GT’s last world title in 2002. Criminally, GT never won a Riptide magazine Peer Poll – a coveted rider-voted award that Mike had on lock for years, even while the Brazilian collected world titles (see: Florence’s five Surfer Poll wins, 2014-18, versus Medina’s zero). Make of that what you will.
Nonetheless, the rivalry pushed the sport to new heights, whether via Mike’s flawless style, poise and classic lines, or GT’s kamikaze approach to waves of consequence. Florence and Medina are clearly having a similar impact.
The tension between Mike and GT thawed with time, but in some ways they’re still competing. They both own bodyboard companies, vying for sales, and live in Hawaii where encounters at Pipe are common. But reverence for one another drips from their responses.
“There’s no hard feelings and it’s more of a friendship,” says GT about Mike today. “Sometimes we text, we call each other. [But] when Mike’s in the water he’s a no friends type of guy. I’m one of the guys who totally respects him though, especially at Pipe because he’s the guy that took Pipe to a different level. I’m always gonna respect him, not just for that, but for lots of things he did for the sport. It still doesn’t feel good seeing him get a good one, and likewise – it’s gonna piss him off watching me get a good barrel. More than anybody else!”
“He’s someone I appreciate and respect so much for what he did for me personally and the sport,” echoes Mike. “And, you know what? He’s actually a really good person.”
The pair even went on their first surf trip together in 2015, albeit without GT signing up for it. Riptide booked them both for what must’ve been an editor’s wet dream, and GT arrived at the airport to discover Mike was on the same flight, on the seat behind him and booked into the bungalow next door.
There was trepidation and competition in the water, but on land they talked openly about life. “We were taking turns getting photos for the mag and it was great… but you know how people treat Mike [laughs]. I watched that and was like, whatever. Pfft! But I love how people put him on a pedestal because it made me even greater, it’s what pushed me the whole rivalry.”
While it’s hard to imagine Medina and Florence going on a surf trip or texting each other now, perhaps the GT and Mike story gives us a glimpse of the surfers’ next 20 years? Whatever it all means, let’s hope there’s no Curren-esque exit from the tour for Florence any time soon. Because if Medina’s anything like GT, he’s in it for the long haul.
“It’s a war,” GT says when I ask what advice he’d give his countryman. “It’s a unique opportunity you’ve got, so by the time you put that lycra on, it’s on. Fight with everything you have.”
// JAKE DEAN